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Did You Know? The Greatest Celebration

By Audrey Schiesser | Local Happenings

Stories Inspired From "The Story of Portsmouth" by Elmer Sword

In our ninth edition of “Did You Know?” with local tales from our county’s history, we are taking a look at “The Greatest Celebration”.

By 1938 the residents of Portsmouth were starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the depression. With the recession in 1937 and the flood, they were ready to celebrate.

Huge plans were made for the city’s participation in a five-day celebration of the Sesquicentennial of the opening of the Northwest Territory.

The two Sesquicentennial Queens were “Miss Liberty”, Phyllis Cole. Miss. Cole was a 17 year old senior at Portsmouth high school. There was also “Miss Columbia”, Janice Jones. Miss. Jones was a 16 year old senior at McDermott high school.

Farmer Steals Plane and Spotlight At Air Show

Approximately 8,000 people stood and sat to watch three hours of daredevil stunting and navy plane maneuvering at the Air Classic officially launching the Sesquicentennial celebration. Nearly 2,000 automobiles were parked at the airport at Raven Rock.

During the show, a man in farmer’s clothes, a straw hat, and had a goatee, was pestering the announcer during the show. He kept insisting that he knew how to fly one of the planes based on a random flying book that he had read.

He was dismissed by the announcer. He then stole a plane and took off while the announcer desperately pleaded with the other pilots to make him stop. The farmer came close to the ground several times. He even cut off his motor twice while in the air.

He eventually made a safe but shaky landing. It was later revealed that he was a planned part of the show and the “farmer” was actually the show’s comedian.

Wooden Nickels Were Souvenirs

One of the main souvenirs for the Sesquicentennial was “wooden nickels” that were printed on thin strips of plywood which actually were negotiable in downtown stores for a short period.

These were designed by B. Leroy Compton, William Faivre, and Paul Jordan. They had five series, each with a different colored face of green, scarlet, blue, maroon, and violet.

The City’s Biggest Parade

People were lined up on streets, sidewalks, in windows, on rooftops, and even hanging from fire escapes. 75,000 people watched the big parade of the Sesquicentennial celebration.

Portsmouth’s “greatest community show” ended with a two hour parade of bands and floats. It had 56 floats and 23 musical units. \

Baseball Celebration

The baseball fans in Portsmouth had cause to celebrate too as the local Red Birds won the Middle Atlantic League pennant that year. The team steadied themselves in first and second place all during the year, but pulled off a win in the last minute.

This team came to Portsmouth at the start of 1937 season when Branch Rickey agreed to make Portsmouth a Cardinal farm club. Branch Rickey was a “hometown boy” who made good in the majors as vice-president and general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. He transferred his Huntington, West Virginia franchise to Portsmouth.

Thank you for joining us this week as we took a dive into one of Portsmouth’s happier times. Join us here next week as we look at how Portsmouth was affected by World War II.


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